PART 1. LUCK THE ANARCH
The returner awaited the punt at his own 30-yard line. His team had just completed an amazing comeback, tying the score with 21 points in the game’s final eight minutes, and now, with 14 seconds on the clock, his return would be the last play of regulation.
But he blew it. He choked. He failed to execute, as coaches say, forgetting the fundamentals of his position. He committed the Pop Warner error that TV commentators love to point out: running up to the 35-yard line to get under the short kick, he glanced at the onrushing behemoths who wished him harm, taking his eyes off the ball for a split second. He didn’t get close enough to the path of the ball and couldn’t catch it using his body. Instead, he leaned forward awkwardly and the ball smashed through his fingers. As the eleven players of the cover team thundered down the field toward him, the ball somersaulted erratically toward his own goal line.
Then he made an even worse mistake. Instead of falling on the ball, as his coaches were screaming at him to do, he attempted to pick it up on the fly.
This was the final play of the final game of the 2010 season. Neither the New York Giants nor the Philadelphia Eagles was having a stellar year, but the winner of this game would be an NFC wild card in the playoffs. The play developed in unpredictable fashion.
The fumbled ball bounced erratically on the Astroturf. A player scooped it up and raced, almost untouched, to the end zone. The hapless bumbler was excoriated on the field by his own coach, reviled in the media, and tweeted by fans warning him to “get witness protection.”
But wait—that hapless bumbler was the punter. He had not kicked the ball the way that his coach had ordered, high and toward the sideline. Instead, he had kicked a low line drive directly toward the returner. Against all odds, the returner recovered his own fumble and ran for a touchdown. The punter was the last man in the way, and he made a decidedly untelegenic lunge, failing to even touch the returner.
If you’re a Giants fan, this December 2010 game so stuck in your craw that you immediately recognized the botched-punt-that-cost-us-the-playoffs. In Giants lore, the play is up there with the infamous 1978 last-second fumble that cost them a game and any shot at the playoffs. And the beneficiaries of that catastrophe? The same archrival Philadelphia Eagles, of course, who refer to that moment as “The Miracle in the Meadowlands.” Eagles fans were quick to dub this year’s version in the Giants’ new stadium, “The Miracle in the New Meadowlands.”
Punt returner DeSean Jackson snatched the ball from the turf. His momentum carried him further backward, past his 32-yard line, where he slowed and began turning. He took a step backward on the 30, and, for about a quarter of a second (the time it takes a 250-pound special teams player to get a yard or two closer) he froze. Jackson described the moment: “I panicked real quickly.”
Surely, the patron deity of football is not Ares, the self-important, cowardly god of war. No, it’s Hera, whose wicked sense of humor and thirst for petty vengeance made even her husband Zeus afraid of her. And at this moment in the course of human events, as the two sidelines screamed conflicting instructions, as 80,000 fans in the New Meadowlands Stadium gasped in breathless suspense, as 19 million Americans stared goggle-eyed at their flat screen plasma TVs, she changed her mind.
Jackson said: “I saw a crease and I just shot through that crease.” Was this gap due to sloppy special teams work by the Giants? Was it due to the inevitably random, split-second arrangement of twenty-two sprinting human bodies? Some credit might go to the Eagles special teams, who had already embarrassed the Giants with a surprise onside kick. Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April said he had decided not to go with the more predictable block attempt, but, “We went with a maximum return.” This turned out very well, but was it a smart call? Ninety-nine times out of 100, the answer would be no. Everyone knew that the punter would kick it out of bounds, and if they didn’t even pressure him, what are the chances that he would give them a returnable punt? The University of Arkansas found themselves in a similar situation two weeks later in the Sugar Bowl. Down 31-26 with 1:09 left and Ohio State punting from their own18, they went for a maximum block—and got it. (An interception shortly afterward foiled the Razorbacks, however.)
In hindsight, it appears a brilliant decision by a brilliant special teams unit. But Bobby April’s crew was not having a good year, and the speedy DeSean Jackson was averaging only 8.7 yards per return, with no touchdowns. On this fateful run, Jackson made only one particularly skillful move, on Bear Pascoe, who said, “he put a little shimmy on me, and that’s what got him past me.” There was only one block that made a difference, Jason Avant taking out the Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie. After streaking past the punter, Ed Dodge, Jackson was so quickly in the clear that he began celebrating on the 30 yard-line and made a horizontal jag in front of the goal line because “I always try to do something out of the ordinary,” as he told reporters. Hera must have enjoyed Jackson’s showboating, because she could have flipped the wheel of fortune one more time. Jackson’s own teammates were not expecting his detour, and at least a half dozen of them were already on the field, celebrating, by the time he finally crossed the goal line. The officials could have called the whole play back for a penalty.
But it’s the punter’s mistake we remember, of course. Kickers are the perennial imposters in the hypermacho world of football. Real men are disgusted that their fate so often depends on these effete specialists. It’s as if the Greek and Trojan warriors fought to a stalemate, and then had to watch as the opposing kings’ daughters decided the outcome with competitive embroidery.
Did losing coach Tom Coughlin cast his head skyward and rail at Hera for such a series of unfortunate events? If he had, she would have spat back: “Hey, I gave you a Super Bowl, for Zeus’ sake! Who else do you think glued the ball to what’s-his-name’s helmet?” Coughlin ran onto the field and screamed in the dejected punter’s face. Dodge had failed to execute. The low line drive punt is the hardest to defend, because the cover team does not have time to get down the field before the returner catches the ball. But the fact that Jackson’s fumble immediately negated the impact of such a punt did not register with Coughlin. Someone had not done as he directed. And the game was lost.
At the post-game press conference, Coughlin only slightly moderated his abuse. He claimed, disingenuously, “I take full responsibility for the last play….” Then he went on… “the young punter was told to punt it out of bounds…and we all learn the hard way.” The media followed his lead. They besieged Dodge in the locker room, before he could escape after a hasty shower. The rookie punter admitted his error and nobly refused to blame the center for the high snap. Things got so bad that a chivalrous Deon Grant, the Giants’ safety, broke into the kerfuffle at Dodge’s locker, and said: “It ain’t his fault. It’s on the defense.” The media, however, did not agree.
Continuing with the play-by-play moments after the touchdown, Joe Buck, Emmy-winning announcer for Fox Sports, said that the punt was “impossible to explain.” On The Coaches Show on NFL.com, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick faulted the punter—“he rushed his fundamentals”—and said that Coach Coughlin “could have gone out there and choked that kicker to death—there’s not a court in America that would have convicted him.” But Jackson’s potentially game-losing mistake got different treatment. Notice Billick’s subtle insertion of “had to” that transforms human error into necessity: “Because DeSean Jackson had to bumble it around a little bit—how many times have we seen where all of a sudden that collapses your coverage team, it condenses the lane, and all of a sudden the guy pops out like that.” This is sports revisionism at its finest. Not only is the punter guilty of a capital offense that gave precious seconds to the returner, but the returner is congratulated for a mistake that gave them back.
The local press on the winning side was more honest about the freakish luck. Philadelphia writers described the play as “a perfect storm” and “the Twilight Zone.” But this magnanimity was limited to the happy partisans in eastern Pennsylvania. Big time national pundits are more serious. They’re supposed to explain why the final result occurred, and they won’t go far in the business if they talk about divine intervention. Here’s how Mark Viera described the punter: “Matt Dodge, whose inability to kick the ball out of bounds resulted in the Giants’ unthinkable game-ending loss
to the Philadelphia Eagles.” Viera’s odd construction, “game-ending loss,” may be atypical for the high editorial standards of his paper, The New York Times, but his pat cause-and-effect in place of the swirling nebula of improbable happenstances that led to the final score—his egregiously sloppy thinking—is the unquestioned norm across his profession.
What made the Giants lose? The same nonsensical force that made the Eagles win. Luck.
* * *
In a blizzard in January 2002, my hometown team, the New England Patriots, hosted a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. With less than two minutes remaining, down 13-10, the Patriots were driving when the young quarterback Tom Brady fumbled during a sack by Charles Woodson. The ball was recovered by the Raiders and the game was over. A dejected Brady, believing that he had bungled away the game, made his way to the sideline. But lo! Down came ref ex machina, in the form of Walt Coleman with the video replay. Coleman chose that moment to invoke the “tuck rule,” an arcane regulation that has lived in infamy from that moment. Even though Brady’s arm was not moving forward in a passing motion when the ball came loose, and even though he had two hands on the ball and was holding it near his chest, it was an “incomplete pass” because he hadn’t completely “tucked” the ball into his body. It was a moment of true gridiron absurdity. Coleman gave the ball back to the Patriots, who tied the game a few plays later with a field goal. They won it with another in overtime. People have been arguing about the tuck rule ever since, and the only thing everyone agrees on is that it stinks.
As a Patriots fan, I could only rationalize this patent injustice as payback for the bitter travesty of the 1976 playoff game that I still remember with painful clarity: a game which the referee literally took from the Patriots and handed to the Raiders—and this despite some atrocious but uncalled fouls, including a punch that broke our tight end’s nose. It’s that game that has always prevented me, like many old and ornery New Englanders, from forming any fondness for John Madden, the coach of the league’s dirtiest team who reinvented himself as a cuddly commentator.
(Some Raider fans rationalized their undeserved fortune of 1976 by remembering the “Immaculate Reception” of Franco Harris, which cost them a trip to the Super Bowl four years earlier. Steelers fans, not to be outdone, saw that one-in-a-gazillion fluke as a just reward for the long hard decades when Jim Brown, Paul Brown and the rest of the archrival Browns trampled them unmercifully. And as for the Browns? Well, there’s one thing I’ve learned in my last 17 years living in Northeast Ohio: don’t ever get a Cleveland fan started on the issue of historic sports injustices. Psychologists have a term for this phenomenon; it’s called a “pissing contest.”)
What happened after the tuck rule? The Patriots went on to become the most successful team of the decade, winning that Super Bowl and three others. The Raiders inaugurated twelve years of futility. It’s impossible to know what would have happened if the referee hadn’t had his mental white-out in the snow. The Patriots would certainly have been among the best in the next season, the Raiders probably would have declined. But there’s no denying the role of dumb luck in launching the Patriots’ dynasty. Dumb luck keeps the word “dynasty” attached to this team. They have been caught cheating—twice. They won the Super Bowl in 2015 after a last-second interception by an unknown player, a play not quite as improbable as the snow job of 2002.
The Patriots of 2002, like the Eagles of 2010, were skilled and dedicated professionals, and their accomplishments were genuine. Nonetheless, they were also the beneficiaries of a transcendent, incomprehensible force. An entity like Hera is, I believe, a perfectly rational expedient for making sense of such events. But at age 3000-something, the old gal has lost some of her zip, and we need more modern language. Fans and sportswriters often speak of “destiny,” but this is a weasel-word, employed to avoid confronting irrationality. “Miracle” is an even worse word to use: it imparts a hint of justice to a bizarre outcome by suggesting that God willed it. “Luck” is the most accurate word, but it’s not big enough on its own. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, saw the beginning of the universe as a sort of Greek mythological chaos, or anarchy, over which presided an entity he called the “Anarch.” Now, if anarchy gets a ruler it ceases to be anarchy, so this word is a lovely oxymoronic coinage, similar to Milton’s “darkness visible” of Hell. The Anarch rules by not ruling. And that’s exactly what luck does. Luck the Anarch.
The role of the sportswriter is like the priest of old, to stand between us and the immensity beyond the altar, to mediate for us, to explain away the mysteries, and most important of all, to keep the terrifying, nameless force hidden behind the curtain.
PART 2: RACING THE TRAIN
Americans, who grow up with the sport and thus have years to absorb its vagaries, don’t appreciate just how convoluted and bizarre football is. Does any other game on earth require a rulebook with sub-sub-sub-headings like the one for the tuck rule: “Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, Note 2”? I’ll never forget my first football game. I was ten years old and had only recently moved from London to the United States. A friend of my father’s took me to a Boston University game, and he attempted to narrate the proceedings to the befuddled English lad. After about fifteen minutes, I told him, Cor blimey! Forget it!
Due to the hopelessly complicated rules, the many methods of scoring for various numbers of points, the extreme influence of referees, the tendency for minor players or big plays to change a game—football is particularly prone to the whims of Luck the Anarch. A reflection of this can be seen in the popular NFL expression, “Any given Sunday,” meaning that any team can beat any other team. When teams are roughly equal, the deciding factor is roughly luck. Indeed, the ball itself is a common metaphor for the absence of human control over events. Its bouncing is randomness itself.
But all sports must face the faceless Luck the Anarch. In soccer, my first love, goals can be maddeningly hard to score, even for great teams with great strikers. This flaw was on full display in the 2010 World Cup Final, where Spain almost had to go to penalty kicks (and might easily have lost) against a vastly inferior Dutch squad which was still in the game only due to systematic fouling. Baseball believes in something they call the “strike zone,” a fiction more preposterous than Hera. And not that it exists only in the mind of the umpire, which would be honest, at least, but that it has precise borders on which everyone should agree! Upon this fantasy rests the outcome of every single game.
Close basketball games can be decided by the way the ball bounces off the rim, by who has the ball or the possession arrow last, by whether or not a referee calls a borderline foul, by whether or not a good or bad player makes or misses an easy or difficult shot. According to the basketball statistics website 82games.com, the best “clutch shooters” have pretty unimpressive clutch shooting percentages. When games were on the line, the best two, Stephan Curry and LeBron James, were both under fifty percent. To put it simply, hitting a clutch shot is a very, very difficult thing to do. Even for a great player. When the ball leaves his hands, it isn’t flying free: it’s nestled between the wings of Luck the Anarch.
In a see-sawing contest, it becomes impossible to say which is the “better” team. Close games show that who is “better” and who is “worse” is not a particularly meaningful question. In fact, I would argue that the whole point of a sporting event is to eliminate, not answer the question.
Sports that attempt to discern the superior performers—judged sports like gymnastics or figure skating—produce notoriously unsatisfying results. This is also the problem that will forever haunt any system that the Bowl Championship Series uses to pick the top four teams and avoid a playoff. The whole point of a playoff is that it doesn’t have to produce the best team; it produces merely a winner.
* * *
My approach to sports may appear cynical, even nihilistic. What’s the point of trying, you might ask. But you shouldn’t. You have to try. You have to work hard. You have to hustle. It’s the only way to retain self-respect, for one thing. It’s also the only way to assert your humanity and stand up to that chaotic force that we all know is behind the curtain. Furthermore, these sports are beautiful and wonderful, and the human body is beautiful and wonderful, and teamwork can be so glorious that it’s pure spirit. That’s the way I feel when I watch Barcelona play futbol.
No, there’s no excuse but to give it your all, whether as a participant or a fan. To paraphrase a famous prayer, this is how we show the courage to change the things we can change. But the prayer also asks for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. Luck is one of these things. More often than not, the outcome is another. Detach yourself from the outcome. To win is nothing. To lose is nothing.
* * *
Where I live, there are many wonderful bike and hike trails in the nearby country. One of them runs parallel to a railroad track for about a mile. The best rides are when I can race a train going in my direction. The big diesel trains usually go around 40 miles per hour, so we don’t race to see who is first to the finish line (the bridge where we part directions). The trains are a mile long, and my bike is 68 inches from tire to tire, so we race to completely cross the line. That’s what makes it a battle. It’s an exhilarating sport.
A friend of mine pointed out that it’s purely chance at what point I first meet the train. I may catch the engine, in which case I might win by a dozen boxcars. Or the race may begin a sixty cars further back. It’s purely arbitrary.
I thought for a moment, then said, “Yes. It’s just like racing a human.”
Any opponent is every bit the enigma of a nameless freight train. We don’t know the size of its engine, its capabilities, its limits, its mechanical flaws. We don’t know how much fuel it has, what are the pressures acting upon the engineer. We don’t know what mountains it had to climb or what prairies it coasted across. At the starting line, we don’t know at what point it is on its journey. The idea that any competition might be “fair” is an illusion. Fairness is an ideal. It doesn’t exist in the real world.
When we believe we won because we are good, smart, noble, brave, blessed by God, or hard-working, this is the stuff of farce. Especially if we are indeed all these things. But when we apply the same moral reasoning to our defeats, this is tragedy.
Sometimes we have it both ways. The winning team deserved the outcome. But for the losing team, victory “was not in the cards,” or “was not to be,” or perhaps, “the stars were not in their favor.” It’s interesting that for the winner, the corollary expressions are not clichés in our culture. Have you ever read a victory described as “it was to be,” or “it was in the cards”? We use this shabby thinking to blind ourselves to what we are really doing: covering everyone but the first-place finisher with a big, stinking pile of shame.
Deriving meaning about our worth from our personal competitions is not as silly as thinking our hometown team is a reflection of ourselves, or as ridiculous as thinking our national team demonstrates something about us as a people, but it’s an absurdity nonetheless.
Competitiveness may have some benefits, but taken to its usual extreme in our culture, it’s a sickness. Take a page from the playbook of that prototypical American, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion.”
If you define yourself, if you know who and what your are, what does it matter the chance comparative standing of others? Should you celebrate if you run a four-minute mile and win, and mope if you run 3:55 and finish last? Should you be proud if you find yourself in a weak competitive pool? Or berate yourself if those around you happen to be better, faster, stronger? Take yourself as your portion; it’s the only portion you’re ever going to get. We are left with only one rational conclusion: winning is for losers.